Me and Cilla

Lee Mattinson
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2008)

Production photo

Alfie's mother Cilla is dying of cancer and he's decided that he isn't really gay after all but wants to be a woman. He is, he says, a pre-op transexual. Meanwhile Cilla's best friend and neighbour, Sadie, is having an affair with her (Cilla's) husband, Ringo. Sadie's daughter has decided to become a Goth and blames Sadie for the fact that her dad has left.Sadie claims to be on a virtual starvation diet and to have lost 14 stones. Cilla is a former Cilla Black tribute act and has always been the star of the local panto but this year she hasn't been asked and she has just discovered that Ringo is actually playing in it. As the play opens Cilla is preparing for her big Christmas party to which all their friends, neightbours and panto company have been invited. But no one seems to be turning up. And there are moments when Cilla becomes Cilla Black, singing her songs, talking about her life in the first person, reprising moments from Surprise, Surprise or Blind Date.

There's enough material here for three months' worth of a soap, all crammed into two and a half hours.

And herein lies the problem. Writer Lee Mattinson has some great ideas, creates interesting characters, manages transitions between comedy and seriousness well, and produces some great one-liners, but there is just too much: too many themes, too many directions in which we, the audience, are led, too many different heartstrings being plucked, so that, in the end, the focus is too diffuse and we never really come to grips with any of the characters or their undoubtedly serious problems.

There is a very good play here trying to get out, but Mattinson will need to be ruthless in cutting away everything which takes away from his main focus - which is presumably Cilla's cancer and the effect it has on those nearest and dearest to her (although the play actually began life as a ten minute piece about a teenage would-be transexual). To give just one example, there were a number of times when the audience sensed that the first act was about to finish (at one point there was even the end of act applause), but no, another theme is picked up again and on we go.

It is well done. I loved the terribly bad taste set, courtesy of designer Gary McCann: there's even a glimpse of the green Chinese girl painting in the hallway and all that's missing from the walls is a flight of ducks! (Although the set is so cluttered with wrought-iron framed mirrors, a huge picture wall and goodness knows what else, that I could well have missed them!)

The performances are great too: Tracy Gillman pushes and pulls us in all directions as the febrile Cilla, whilst Bill Fellows' Ringo exudes an air of quiet desperation as he tries to work out what he should do and say. David Tute as Alfie (or Deborah Marguerite as he wants to be known), in his first professional performance, reveals his character's own desperation, not just over his sexuality but over the condition of his mother (which they think they have hidden from him). And as Sadie, the blowsy tart from next door, Vicky Elliot is a delight and gets most of the best laughs of the night - a special word of commendation here to designer McCann for her hideous party dress and scary make-up!

Lee Mattinson is a real talent, but he needs to learn that most difficult of skills for any writer - what to leave out.

"Me and Cilla" runs until 5th July

Reviewer: Peter Lathan